2001 Ducati Monster S4
Bologna, Italy, 08 Aug 2001
One power wheelie, exactly one minute into my ride on the new Ducati Monster S4, was enough to convince me that Ducati have built a proper Monster at last!
Let face it, even back in 1993, when the 900 cc Ducati Monster was unveiled, there was nothing monstrous about the 80 horsepower that the old air-cooled mill produced. Even back then, dinosaurs like GSX-Rs, FZRs and ZX-11s roamed planet earth, and the name "Monster" seemed a bit presumptuous to say the least. Nevertheless, the not-so-aptly named bike turned out to be Ducati's salvation. Tens of thousands of Monsters in various displacements became a Ducati staple and opened new markets for a factory that has always been identified with uncompromising hyper-sport torture racks.
The story of the original Monster is nothing short of a miracle. One day, a young designer named Miguel Galuzzi started to play with a left over 888 frame, a big front headlight from the backyard parts bin, and a clay modeled gas tank. That first prototype was something that Ducati's management just couldn't - or wouldn't - approve of. But the Argentinian-Italian designer was onto something. It looked ugly enough to be called "Monster" but it was a captivating bike with rugged, street-fighter looks.
We've always had a soft sport for Ducati's Monster. The swap to a 916 motor only makes our yearning for the bike even stronger.Amazingly, the original bike from '93 has made it into the new millennium without major changes in it's eight year life, save for the introduction of digital fuel injection last season. But new kids on the block like Triumph's Speed Triple, Cagiva's Raptor 1000 and Honda's X1 started to cast menacing shadows over the under-powered Monster. It wasn't a moment too early to slot the 916's water-cooled power unit into the Monster.
The heart transplant has required quite few changes in the frame. Most notable to the naked eye is the sturdy new swing arm that incorporates a totally different rear suspension linkage. It looks just like the one on the ST4 tourer, but with the rear cylinder's exhaust pipe routed right through it. Rests of the changes simply makes room for the different dimensions of the engine and a higher seat. To further distinguish the S4 from its lower siblings, the bike is packed with shiny carbon fiber parts. Front and rear mud guards, cam belt covers, side panels and silencer protectors play games with the sunlight and make you feel like a Stealth Bomber pilot. A factory-mounted bikini fairing, rear seat cowling and red wheels set the S4 farther apart.
As impressive as all these parts are, there are still a few unpleasing, out of place details. The cheap looking mirrors don't belong here. Then, the left-hand side-mounted water pump is a bit of a sore thumb, sticking out notably from the frame's smooth plane. Ditto for the lower, black rubber water pipe that goes from the pump to the radiator. Just make sure to park your S4 next to a wall when possible.The engine itself has been detuned from its original Superbike state to better match the requirements of street-fighting. Milder cams bump the torque curve towards the midrange and, of course, slash top end power somewhat. Other than that, little has been changed in the basic power unit that brought Ducati quite a few WSBK championships and, indeed, the feeling of exhibiting this fine piece of engineering all over town is very satisfying.
The S4's styling remains faithful to the original Monster. No, not Frankenstein.
Italy is quite full of Monsters, but at the stop lights you can see other Ducati owners casting envious looks on the S4's race-bred engine. Thankfully, in the case of the S4, there is substance behind the pose and it is really the power that grabs your immediate attention. One hundred or so horses at the rear wheel might not sound that much nowadays, but coupled with the shorter gearing of the S4, this easily supplies superb acceleration. From 4,000 rpm onwards, the S4 flies into the rev limiter at 9,500 with ease, catapulting the rider into the 100-plus mph range with a force that the old monster could only dream about. No less impressive than the acceleration is the fluidity and smoothness of the 916 mill. Compared to the old unit, the new one gets the job done with much less fuss and clattering. Sure, the trademark rattle of the dry clutch is still there, but that's about it.
Thankfully, there is a definite improvement in the ergonomics too. My memories of the old model where of a seat that was too low and foot pegs that were too high. The new Monster has gained more than an inch in seat height and my knees did not have to bend to race replica angles.
The founders of Ducati sure knew where to build their factory. The amazing and hilly playground of Tuscany begins at Bologna and that's where I decided to head towards upon picking the bike at the factory. As impressive as the engine is, on these mountain roads, there is still something that I don't like about the handling.
Carbon fiber and red rims are key visual clues when trying to spot an S4 in a crowd of Monsters.
Steering is very precise and stable, but the bike seems to squat down on its rear end too much, giving an uneasy feeling when pitching it into turns. This also creates a bit of under-steer during the exits. Later on, I decided to check the suspension settings only to discover that they're way off. Front preload was way too high and at the rear was just the opposite. I had been riding with at least one degree more rake than planned and the rear suspension damping was at 8 instead of 16. Somebody has been trying to turn the bike into a chopper!